Beyond the Darkness (Guardians of Mirra: Book 2)


15. 15

~~Katherine sat away from the sleeping group, deep in thought. As the sky turned light and they started to stir, she made her decision, knowing she couldn’t put it off any longer. She waited until they were all sitting down to breakfast before she spoke. “There is a human village not far from here that I think we should stay at, tonight. They are not very welcoming to outsiders, especially non-humans.” She glanced at the elves. “However, I think they will allow us to stay, since I am leading the group. I have stayed there before and they do not dare to disrespect the guardian, so I doubt anyone in this group will have much to fear.”
“You’re taking us home?” Melody’s voice rose over the quiet group. William turned to see her distressed expression. Bard didn’t look any happier as he ran a finger over her palm.
Katherine sighed and nodded. “I’m aware that this place holds a great deal of pain for you and your brother since you were cast out, but we are travelling in dangerous territory and things will only get worse. This village is well-protected against dark magic, so we would be safe if we stayed there. Believe me, I have given this a lot of thought, not wanting to put you in such a situation. This is our best option or I would lead all of you away from there.”
Meredith frowned, deciding she already didn’t like the village. Even so, she trusted the guardian who said they needed to stay there. “What makes it so safe?”
Katherine looked at her. “There is a pillar that has been charmed to dampen magic. No one knows how it works, but it’s effective. You have to be truly powerful to use it in this village and, even then, it is severely weakened.”
“Doesn’t that mean you wouldn’t be able to use much magic?” William pointed out.
Katherine nodded. “I wouldn’t be able to use as much, but I’d still have as much as I needed and the villagers know they’d have the king’s army down there if they angered me, so they would not dare much, even with the protection against magic.”
“I don’t like it.” Valda announced. “It sounds like a dreadful place. Is there no way to avoid it?”
“Not if we want to be safe, tonight.” Katherine replied. “There are no other settlements around because of the danger. I know it’s an unpleasant plan, but we don’t have any better options, trust me.”
The group shared glances with each other, no one willing to go against Katherine when she was so certain. Jake glanced over to Azazel. “Wouldn’t he be at risk if he couldn’t use his magic? I expect many people would harm him, given such an opportunity.”
“Your concern for me is touching, but I have no intention of entering the village.” The prince was facing away and had been pretending not to listen up to that point. “Unlike the rest of you, I will not be in danger around here.”
The others looked at Katherine and she shrugged, trying to make light of the situation as much as she could. “It doesn’t really matter if he stays with us. He isn’t a prisoner, after all. If we separate when we reach the village, that may be for the best. We never intended for him to travel all the way to the cave with us, regardless.”
Gabriella frowned and looked to her brother. “I don’t want to be separated from you so quickly. Perhaps, you could meet us on the other side of the village.”
He didn’t look at her or respond.
Katherine sighed. “We should get going if we want to reach the village by nightfall.” She stood and the others followed her lead. “Once we get there, just stay close to me and we should all be fine.”

The first thing that could be seen of the village was the pillar Katherine had mentioned. It was twenty feet tall and as wide around as a fully-grown oak tree. It was white and had a pale glow like the moon in Dunya. Katherine stopped them, just as buildings could be seen. She turned to face the group. “Be polite and don’t let the villagers get to you.” She looked over at Bard and Melody. “Be strong, as I know you can.” As her eyes ran over the group, they narrowed a bit. Azazel seemed to have disappeared. She figured he had slipped away as they walked, but she forced herself not to worry about it. She had known he wouldn’t enter the village and she could already feel her magic lessening, so she couldn’t concern herself with idle worries as she led the group forward.
Their reception was as warm as they had expected. The villagers gave the group suspicious looks as they passed, but no one dared to approach them. William forgot their earlier agreement and grabbed onto Josie’s hand. The child didn’t object. Unconsciously, the members of the group drew closer together, tightening their ranks against the villagers.
Katherine led them into the largest building, inside of which was a reception desk. Off to the side was a room with tables, which appeared to be some sort of restaurant. It was not so different from the inns in Dunya, except that this one contained a bunch of angry-looking villagers. Doing her best to ignore them, the guardian walked up to the reception desk and spoke to a girl standing behind it. “We need rooms, please.”
The girl’s eyes wandered over the group. “We don’t welcome elves, here. They’ll have to camp outside the village.”
“You’ll welcome them.” Katherine informed her, calmly. “I am the guardian of Mirra and they are my travelling companions. They stay with me.”
The receptionist frowned, looking like she wanted to argue. However, Katherine’s steady gaze and firm words made that difficult. “We only have one room available and it’s rather small. I doubt you’ll all fit.”
Katherine suspected that was probably a lie, but she wasn’t prepared to push her luck. Despite her assurances to the group, she didn’t trust these villagers not to attack them if they felt provoked. “Very well.” She pulled out a back of coins which she had been given at the palace. She placed a few on the counter, over-paying for the room, to be safe.
The girl behind the counter handed her a key and waited for them to walk away.
Katherine happily obliged, leading the group up some stairs and into a room with one small bed. They all made it in and looked around.
“Well, this is…cozy.” Meredith was doing her best to remain positive. “Most of us will have to sleep on the floor, but that’s no big deal.”
“I’ll take first watch.” Tristan volunteered. Despite the being in the village and locked away in a room, no one felt safe. They schedule the other shifts without argument.
William looked at Katherine. “You should probably take the bed.”
The guardian shook her head and smiled. “I’ve grown so accustom to sleeping on the ground, I’m not sure I could relax in a bed, right now.”
There was a brief discussion among the group about who should sleep on the bed, but, in the end, no one wanted it, so they all found places on the floor and covered themselves in their own blankets, just as they did outside. William gave the bed a thoughtful look. “Jake, Henry, help me move this.”
The twins looked at each other and shrugged, walking over. The three tried to lift the bed, but had no luck. Jake grunted with the effort. “It’s heavier than it looks.”
“That’s good, though.” William told them. “It will make for a better barricade if we put it against the door.”
Understanding his intention, Valda walked over and helped them push the bed against the bedroom door. He nodded his thanks to the she-elf and she lay down across the room without a word. The twins found a spot on the floor big enough for the two of them. Everyone was pressed together, but they all managed to fit. Tristan was careful to choose a spot as far away from Katherine as possible, despite the fact that it put him next to Kaelen. He comforted himself with the knowledge that he would be awake for the next hour.
 William lay down next to Josie, wanting to be sure she was safe, and the child fell asleep quickly. His spot put him near Bard and Melody, who seemed to be deep in conversation as they lay there. “Are you two okay?”
Melody paused, apparently discussing it with her brother. “We were afraid we might see our parents, but we’re sad that we didn’t. Isn’t that odd?”
“Makes perfect sense to me.” William assured her. “There were times when I thought my mom was going to be somewhere and I would get scared, but then I would be really disappointed when I didn’t see her. Sometimes, I would even cry.”
Melody smiled at him in the dark. “There’s nothing wrong with crying when you’re sad.” She took a breath. “I don’t always cry when I feel like it because I don’t want Bard to worry. I sometimes think he does the same thing. It’s silly, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” William replied, bluntly. “You should never think you need to hide your feelings from your family. If anyone will understand, it’s them, right?”
“Right.” She closed her eyes. “You seem to be a good older brother. Your siblings are lucky to have you.”
William didn’t feel the need to correct her. The others were his family, even if they weren’t related by blood. “I do my best. Now, you should get some sleep, if you can.”
“Alright.” She rolled over, turning her back to him.
William smiled as he closed his eyes, falling asleep more quickly than he had expected.

He woke up to a sound in the middle of the night. It took a moment for him to realize someone was jiggling their door handle. He sat up and looked over. Kaelen was on watch and already had his sword drawn as he watched the door. After a moment, the noise stopped and footsteps could be heard, moving away from the room.
“What do you think that was?” William asked in a whisper.
“Probably nothing pleasant.” Kaelen’s tone was soft and he kept his eyes on the door. “They seem to have gone, now. Go back to sleep.”
William nodded and lay back down, but sleep didn’t come as easily, now. He wished they were out under the golden stars, far away from the village and its unpleasant citizens.

The next morning, they woke up early and got ready to go as quickly as possible, eager to be out of the unfriendly village. They ate a quick breakfast from what was left of their rations. No one even thought of suggesting they buy more in the village. They packed their bags and headed out.
Even in the early hours, there were dozens of people out, starting their days. Most of them chose to ignore the group. The ones that looked at them didn’t appear to be having kind farewell thoughts for the visitors. At one point, a clod of mud came flying at them and hit Kaelen on the shoulder. The group took defensive stances and tried to figure out who had thrown it, but there were too many people and nobody stuck out. Kaelen dusted his shoulder off and kept going, his expression never changing. The rest of the group had no choice but to keep walking and ignore the insult.
They were all quite relieved to put the village behind them. No one even turned back to look at it as they walked. They all looked straight ahead, barely speaking for a few hours until they stopped for a lunch break in an orchard of trees, bearing yellow fruit. The trees themselves had blue trunks and red leaves. The grass beneath them was orange. Katherine plucked a piece of fruit and looked it over. “These seem ripe enough.” She looked at the group. “We should pack what we can. We’ll eat and rest for a little while, then pick some to take with us.”
Nobody argued as they each plucked a piece of fruit and sat down to eat. William looked over at Kaelen, who was brushing some dirt off his blue tunic. Despite his efforts, the dark spot didn’t seem to fade much. William frowned at it. “We might be able to wash it out when we get back.”
The dark elf looked at him. “It’s of little importance.” He stopped trying to get the stain off. “It’s just a shirt, after all.”
“Well, it still sucks.” William told him.
“Sucks?” Kaelen stared at him, not understanding the slang.
William nodded. “It means it’s bad or unfair. It was wrong for them to throw dirt at us, whatever their beliefs. They seem to be some messed up people.” He looked over at Melody and Bard. “No offense.”
“None taken.” She assured him. “We don’t associate ourselves with those villagers an we hope you will not, either.”
“Fair enough.” He replied, agreeably.
“It’s not as if their behavior is so uncommon.” The dark elf commented. “Perhaps humans don’t see it as much and even wood elves tend to deal with it less, but many places are unwelcoming to dark elves. They tend to be suspicious of us. Even in the Domed City people tend to avoid associating with my kind.”
William frowned and looked at Katherine. “Is that true?”
The guardian nodded. “Dark elves have a habit of keeping to themselves, as you have seen. They also prefer the night, so they are often associated with dark magic users.” She looked at Kaelen. “I know your people would not do such a thing, but they can be rather mysterious and people often fear that which they do not understand.”
“You do not need to explain their motives to me.” He assured her. “I am accustomed to the prejudices and no longer allow myself to be troubled by them.”
William tried to think of something to say. As a foster kid, he knew what it was like to be an outsider and get treated as less than his peers, but he couldn’t imagine what it would be like to deal with things like that for hundreds of years as an immortal elf would. “It must suck.”
“People will always jump to conclusions and go against anyone who doesn’t fit into their idea of what is right. It’s best to just accept that and move on.” Azazel appeared from behind a tree, surprising the group.
Katherine stared at the boy, wondering how he had managed to sneak up on them. “I thought you would be long gone by now.”
“I decided it might be interesting to travel with you a little longer.” He replied, simply. “I could go, if you prefer.”
The guardian shook her head. “It will be a couple of days before we need to separate. You are welcome to travel with us until then, as long as you mean us no harm.”
“I gave my word, didn’t I?” He reminded her.
“How did you find us?” Valda demanded, annoyed at having been surprised by the boy.
Azazel met her angry gaze, calmly. “I’ve been following you since you left town. You should pay better attention. If I wanted to kill you all, I could have easily done so.”
“Is that a challenge?” Her hand fell to the hilt of her sword.
“Simply a statement.” He assured her. “Now, you should all be focusing on getting ready and going. You’re wasting your precious daylight, after all.”
Before anyone could start arguing, Katherine spoke up. “He’s right. We’ve rested long enough. Pack what fruit you can and we’ll head out.” She stood and started picking fruit, so that the others followed her lead. She breathed a sigh as she looked over at Azazel, desperately wishing she could read his mind.

It took only an hour for them to reach the end of the orchard and they were in a field of berry bushes by nightfall. The berries were milky white and Katherine warned the group not to eat them.
“Are they poisonous?” Henry asked, looking one over.
“They will make you sleep for a very long time.” She told him. “We can’t have anyone doing that, right now.”
He nodded his understanding, not wishing to make any more foolish mistakes regarding food, especially with Gabriella among the group.
They settled down for the night by a stream and Katherine put up the usual protection spells with the help of the elves. Despite the fact that she had warned them they were in dangerous territory, everyone felt much better than they had the night before when they were staying at the inn. The ground was soft and the air was warm, encouraging those not on guard to fall asleep quickly.
Jake took first watch and he sat within speaking distance of Azazel. “Why did you come back? Are you trying to follow us to the cave?”
“I have little interest in your cave.” The prince assured him. “My reasons for coming back are my own.”
“Is it because Gabriella asked you to?” Jake guessed.
Azazel’s moment of silence indicated he was on the right track. “She would probably be happier if I did not travel with you further.”
“It might be easier on her, not to have to look at what you’ve become.” Jake agreed. “But I wouldn’t say she would be happier. She wants to have you nearby because you are her brother, no matter how much of a jerk you are.”
“I take it that ‘jerk’ isn’t a compliment.” Azazel commented.
“Definitely not.” Jake looked him over. “You should talk to Gabriella. I think that would make her happier.”
“You say strange things, Dunyan.” The prince told him. “You think she dislikes me as I am, but you say she would be happy if I spoke to her, knowing whatever I say would just emphasize how much I’ve changed.”
Jake shrugged. “Maybe you haven’t changed as much as everyone thinks. In my experience, people are who they are, no matter how much they try to change.”
“And your experience spans about what? Thirteen years?” Azazel asked, not really looking at him.
“Almost sixteen.” Jake informed him. “I’m only a couple of years younger than you.”
The prince was silent for a while. “You know I am going to assist the dark lord and bring darkness to the realm, even if I talk to my sister, correct?”
Jake shrugged again. “Then what’s the harm?”
There was another long pause before Azazel replied. “I’ll think about it if you stop talking to me, now.”
Jake smiled and moved away, thinking the prince was really not as cold as he wanted everyone to believe.

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